Tuesday, October 27, 2015

'Rebel Without a Cause' Told a Tale That is Still Socially Relevant



"Watch out about choosing your pals. You know what I mean? Don't let 'em choose you."

Frank Stark (Jim Backus)

Ten years ago, as the 50th anniversary of the premiere of "Rebel Without a Cause" approached, film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the movie "has not aged well."

Well, that movie is 60 years old today, and it still doesn't seem to be aging gracefully — although it may have more social and (dare I say it?) political relevance today than it did in 2005. The 1950s, after all, have been reviled as a decade of conformity, a Leave it to Beaver decade, by the political left in this country for a long time — and in many (but not all) respects, the decade deserves that reputation.

But we are living in a time that is every bit as judgmental about anyone who doesn't share the popular opinions on everything as the '50s generation was about the nonconformists of that time. This is not reviled by the left because it embraces many of the left's values, but it is every bit as harsh and unforgiving to anyone who steps out of line.

In the 1950s, the buzz phrase was juvenile delinquency; the problem with that is that it was a blanket phrase that was used for many things, some completely unrelated, and it came to be epitomized on screen in the '50s by the likes of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, who were regarded as more sensitive than their predecessors. In many ways, I think Dean is the forgotten one of the three because his light was extinguished so prematurely — four weeks before "Rebel Without a Cause" premiered.

I didn't really understand that when I was a child. I heard people speak of James Dean, but I kept wondering why he made so few movies if he was so great. Then, of course, I found out that he died in a car crash at the age of 24. The only movie to be released during his lifetime was "East of Eden," in which he played a role similar to the one he played in "Rebel Without a Cause."

And, in the process, he became the poster child for teen angst.

I agree with Ebert. The film hasn't aged well.

Even so, there are not many young people who won't recognize themselves or people they know in the young people in "Rebel Without a Cause." There are some things that are universal and eternal — teen angst is one of them.

But true teen angst, it seems to me, is a symptom of something deeper, and "Rebel" touched on those deeper issues — dysfunctional relationships with parents being high on the list — but never really resolved them. And, frankly, who hasn't felt that way at some time and to some extent? Teens today seem to have the same issues with their parents as they did when I was a teen — and, I assume, my parents had those same issues with their parents.

The circumstances differ, but it's really the same group, isn't it? There is always at least one who had only one parent. There is always at least one who has both parents and feels he is being smothered by them. There is yet another who has both parents and is ignored by one or both.

Dean played the teenager who had both parents and was being smothered by them. "You're tearing me apart!" he wails to them in what may be his most memorable line from a meteoric career.

Natalie Wood's character was Dean's love interest. She had an emotionally distant father — clearly uneasy with a blossoming teenage daughter in the house who yearned so for affection that she risked his alienation by simply giving him a peck on the cheek or putting her arm around his shoulders.

"Girls don't do that sort of thing," he reprimanded her.

"Don't do what?" she asked incredulously. "Love their fathers?"

Then, after she had met and grown to know Dean, who was the new boy in town, Wood's character said — in an equally incredulous manner — "I love somebody. All the time I've been ... I've been looking for someone to love me. And now I love somebody. And it's so easy. Why is it easy now?"

Not long before, when the two were together for the first time and found themselves outside Wood's home, Dean asked innocently, "Is this where you live?"

"Who lives?" Wood asked.

Both Dean and Wood were tragic figures in their own ways — but the most tragic figure probably was Plato, played by Sal Mineo. Plato had no father in the house and barely had a mother, who had a habit of running off on adventures and leaving her son in the custody of the housekeeper. In the rear–view mirror of 2015, it seems obvious that Plato was homosexual.

He, too, yearned for male affection but not from a father he had never really known. He was clearly drawn to Dean.

"Hey, you want to come home with me?" he asked after the game of chicken run that took the life of another disaffected youth. "I mean, there's nobody home at my house, and heck, I'm not tired. Are you? See, I don't have too many people I can talk to. If you want to come, we could talk, and in the morning we could have breakfast like my dad used to. Gee, if only you could have been my dad."

Mineo was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Jack Lemmon in "Mister Roberts." Wood was nominated for Best Supporting Actress but lost to Jo Van Fleet in "East of Eden." Nicholas Ray was nominated for Best Writing but lost to Daniel Fuchs in "Love Me or Leave Me."

Dean wasn't nominated for Best Actor for his performance in "Rebel Without a Cause." He was nominated for "East of Eden" but lost to Ernest Borgnine in "Marty."

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Start of a Great Writing Career



"I did not deceive you, mon ami. At most, I permitted you to deceive yourself."

Hercule Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

Ninety–five years ago this month, Agatha Christie published the first of dozens of mystery novels — "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" — and introduced the world to one of its most enduring literary detectives, Hercule Poirot.

Christie wrote her first novel during World War I, published it in 1920, then neatly took things full circle 55 years later with "Curtain," a novel she wrote during World War II and brought Poirot and his sidekick Hastings back to Styles for their final case together.

As I have heard the story, Christie's career as a writer began a decade before "Styles" was published — when she was recovering from influenza at her family's home. Convalescence bored her, and her mother suggested that she try her hand at writing. Agatha resisted, saying she didn't think she could. Her mother observed that she had never tried, then left briefly and returned with a writing exercise book. By the following evening, she had finished her first story, a tale of "madness and dreams" that Christie herself, after re–reading the unpublished manuscript half a century later, said showed "the influence of all that I had read the week before" — which had "obviously" been D.H. Lawrence — although a biographer called her story "compelling."

Well, regardless of the merits of the story, it is beyond dispute that it launched an astonishing career. Christie has been dead nearly 40 years, but "The Guinness Book of World Records" recognizes her as the world's best–selling novelist of all time, with more than 2 billion copies of her books having been sold. Her estate claims her novels are behind only the works of Shakespeare and the Bible on the list of the world's most widely published books.

For years before her first book was published, Christie treated her writing as a hobby — like embroidery — but that hobby was preparing her for her life's work.

That tale she wrote while recovering from the flu may have been her first writing effort, but it was "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" that was her first to be published.

It wasn't the first Christie book I ever read, but I immediately recognized something in her writing that was drilled into us when I was a journalism student in college. For lack of a better term, call it the Joe Friday technique — Just the facts.

Christie let her characters speak for themselves. She resisted the temptation to suggest what the characters ought to be saying or to explain to the readers what the characters intended to say. She had the wisdom to let the characters' statements speak for themselves.

It was an element that often made for her best novels. She allowed the readers to reach their own conclusions (which were often wrong) based on what the characters said. Characters often said things that were self–serving and misleading — as they did and do in real life. Readers who reached conclusions based more on the evidence than a witness' testimony usually fared better.

If Christie received any criticism for her initial work, it was that she was perhaps a bit too clever. Critics were virtually unanimous in their verdict that it was a clever plot — but, as one critic complained, there were too many clues in "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" that had the effect of canceling each other out. At times it may have been too clever for its own good.

Of course, there were plenty of red herrings in Christie's books, as there are in any good mystery. I have never tried to write a mystery, but I suppose it is tempting to connect the dots for the reader, to explain what is relevant and what is not.

I know it was often tempting in my work as a reporter to connect the dots for people, but I was guided by advice from my news writing professor, a fellow who worked for the New York Times for many years. He told me to give the readers the facts, the statements that others made, the evidence that was presented and let them make up their own minds.

That, I think, was the secret to Christie's fiction–writing success. Novelists write about the worlds they create; reporters write about the world that already exists. But the key to success for both is to let the readers reach their own conclusions.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

In Pursuit of the Slutty Pumpkin



Robin (Cobie Smulders): How do you do this, Ted? How do you sit out here all night, in the cold, and still have faith that your pumpkin's going to show up?

Ted (Josh Radnor): Well, I'm pretty drunk. Look I know the odds are, the love of my life isn't going to magically walk through that door in a pumpkin costume at 2:43 in the morning. But it just seems as nice a spot as any to just ... you know, sit and wait.

When I was a boy, I loved the seasonal TV specials that were based on the "Peanuts" comic strip. I didn't see any of them until my parents bought our first TV when I was in first grade, but they were shown every year so, by the time I was in third or fourth grade, I was pretty familiar with each one and was starting to form opinions about my favorite parts.

My mother told me that the first time I saw "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," I cried because I felt so sorry for Linus having to spend a cold late fall night waiting in the pumpkin patch for a Great Pumpkin who never came.

I couldn't help thinking about that when I saw the episode of How I Met Your Mother that aired for the first time a decade ago tonight. It was called "The Slutty Pumpkin," and ever since I first saw it in reruns, I have regarded it as an "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" for adults.

As if the title of the episode didn't kinda give that one away.

Like Linus, Ted (Josh Radnor) spent every Halloween waiting for someone who never came. In Ted's case, it was the Slutty Pumpkin. That was the name he had given to a girl wearing a pumpkin costume at a party he once attended. She wrote her number on a candy wrapper, but it was misplaced and Ted never got in touch with her again.

So every year he went to the same rooftop party, hoping she would show up. Alas, she never did.

Well, at one point, he thought he had found her again. She was dressed as a penguin — the audience learned earlier that the Slutty Pumpkin had studied penguins for a year — and was mixing her trademark cocktail, Kahlúa and root beer. But it turned out to be Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), who made it a habit to bring at least one spare costume to Halloween parties so he could get a second chance to make a first impression if he struck out in his initial attempt to bed the hottest girl at the party.

Anyway, Ted went to the same rooftop party and waited after everyone else had gone, hoping to see the Slutty Pumpkin.

Robin (Cobie Smulders), who had just been dumped by the guy she had been seeing for a couple of weeks, came up to the roof and found him there. And they empathized with each other's struggles to find love.

It was probably one of the first times that the audience got a glimpse into what made Ted tick — and it helped the audience understand why Ted was so resilient, why he never gave up.

His expectations often seemed hopelessly unrealistic, and his remedies for the unpleasant circumstances his own choices frequently spawned often seemed futile.

At heart, he was a romantic. I guess Linus was, too, for that matter.

It also gave the audience an insight into Robin's character. Her "boyfriend" kept trying to do boyfriend–girlfriend stuff with her, but she resisted. At one point, Lily (Alyson Hannigan) encouraged her to "put on the girlfriend costume for one night," but it just wasn't her style — and the guy figured it out.

After he broke up with her, Robin summed it up neatly for Lily and Marshall (Jason Segel): "He wanted to be a 'we,' and I wanted to be an 'I.'"

As the series evolved, the audience understood that Robin put her career ahead of anything else, including personal relationships.

She told Ted she wanted to be in love, but she wondered if maybe she was wired wrong. He assured her that there was nothing wrong with her.

And that isn't a bad message to send to people — that there is no one–size–fits–all approach to finding one's soulmate (and some folks never do), no single path to take. It's a trail each person must blaze for himself/herself.

For Ted, it was about spending every Halloween at a rooftop party hoping to see a girl he met briefly years before.

And faith.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Holding On to Your Youth



Older Ted (Bob Saget): So, kids, would you like to hear the story about the time I went deaf?

Luke (David Henrie): Why does he even ask?

Penny (Lyndsy Fonseca): I know. He's just gonna tell us, anyway.

Older Ted: I sure am.

On this day in 2005, How I Met Your Mother was still a new TV program trying to carve out its niche. The characters were still evolving, but enough was known about them by this point that certain running jokes were in the viewers' minds already.

The viewers already knew that Barney was always in the mood.

And the episode that aired on this night 10 years ago — the series' fifth ever — focused on that eternal tug–o–war between one's carefree youth and the adult world that (ostensibly) demands that one act in a reserved and responsible manner.

In this episode, Robin (Cobie Smulders), who was always pleased when her work as an early morning news anchor provided her with a perk of some kind, had been invited to the hottest — and very exclusive — new night club in town (called "Okay")by its owner, who happened to go to Robin's gym and was a fan of her work. Ted (Josh Radnor) and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) were in for joining Robin, but they both laughed when Robin suggested including Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) as well. Marshall and Lily, with their wedding coming up, were trying to be more grown up in their activities.

They had been signing up for book clubs, cooking classes, and they were planning a winetasting party for a few other couples.

At the techno club, the music was so loud that no one could carry on a conversation. When he discovered that particular fact, Ted thought he would have some fun and started saying thoroughly absurd things to his blind date, such as "I'm from outer space!" and "I got thrown out of SeaWorld for humping a dolphin!"

But then the music stopped briefly and the dance club was completely silent — except for Ted shouting, "I'm wetting my pants!"

And that was it for his date.

Meanwhile, Marshall had made his escape from the party back at the apartment, climbing through the bathroom window and hailing a cab. His destination — the techno club.

After awhile, Lily began to wonder what was wrong with Marshall. When she went to the bathroom to investigate, she found it empty with the bathroom window open. So she, too, made her escape and followed Marshall to the techno club.

There she found Robin sitting on the curb. Through a mixup, she had ended up outside the club and her named had been marked off the list because she had gone in earlier, and a different guy was now in charge of letting people in.

Anyway, Lily and Marshall kind of rediscovered their youth on the dance floor that night — and concluded that it isn't a bad thing to hang on to the person you were even as you seek to broaden your horizons.

I thought it was a good episode. It underscored some important things about the characters and their relationships to each other.

I guess most people, at one time or another, have a yearning for another time and another place in their lives — when and where they think they were happy, whether they really were or not. I know I have had that feeling several times in my life, frequently at my low points when just about anything seemed good by comparison.

In the case of Marshall and Lily, they were torn between a desire to be grown up and a desire to remain young. Inevitably, I suppose those characters would have to concede that time has the last say — which doesn't seem like a bad theme for a reunion somewhere down the line — so, if one wants to recapture one's youth, it seems the best time to do so is while one is still young — or reasonably so. Right?

Stephen King's Favorite Novel



"... the Lot's knowledge of the country's torment was academic. Time went on a different schedule there. Nothing too nasty could happen in such a nice little town. Not there."

Stephen King, 'Salem's Lot (1975)

On this day in 1975, Stephen King published his second novel — "'Salem's Lot." It was his first novel since the phenomenally successful "Carrie," which may have been in its movie production by this time.

King has frequently said that, of all his novels, "'Salem's Lot" was his favorite. "In a way it is my favorite story, mostly because of what it says about small towns," he said.

Having grown up in a small town, I have a pretty good idea what he meant by that.

The protagonist was returning to his hometown, Jerusalem's Lot, a fictional town in Maine, after being away for 25 years. He planned to write a novel — and, in the process, exorcise a few demons of his own — inspired by a spooky old house that had been the scene of an unpleasant childhood experience for him.

Things went pretty well for him initially. He struck up a friendship with a high school teacher and a romantic relationship with a young recent college graduate.

He discovered that the house had been purchased by an Austrian immigrant, who intended to open a business. He wasn't home when the protagonist arrived in town. He was on a buying trip. His business partner was in town.

About the time they showed up, a young boy disappeared, and his brother died — and became the town's first vampire. Within just a few weeks, he had turned several townspeople into vampires.

It began to dawn on the protagonist that something sinister was afoot.

King said he was inspired to write the book when he was teaching a high school course in fantasy and science fiction, and the class was reading and discussing Bram Stoker's "Dracula." King began to ponder what Dracula's story would be like if he came back to 20th–century America. His wife suggested that he would probably be run over by a taxi, and King had to agree she probably was right — if Dracula came to New York City.

But what if he came to a "sleepy little country town" instead? What would happen?

"I decided I wanted to find out, so I wrote ''Salem's Lot,'" King said.

King also said he was influenced by the politics of the time. "I wrote 'Salem's Lot' during the period when the Ervin committee was sitting," he said. "That was also the period when we first learned of the Ellsberg break–in, the White House tapes, the connection between Gordon Liddy and the CIA, the news of enemies lists and other fearful intelligence. During the spring, summer and fall of 1973, it seemed that the federal government had been involved in so much subterfuge and so many covert operations that, like the bodies of the faceless wetbacks that Juan Corona was convicted of slaughtering in California, the horror would never end. ... Every novel is to some extent an inadvertent psychological portrait of the novelist, and I think that the unspeakable obscenity in 'Salem's Lot' has to do with my own disillusionment and consequent fear for the future."

There's no mistaking the political influence on "'Salem's Lot." It has been adapted for television twice, and its message seems just as appropriate for audiences 40 years later as it was in 1975.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Hitchcock Was the Master of Suspense, Even on TV



"Which one's gonna be the killer? Which one gets the rope around his neck?"

Maggie (Ellen Corby)

As I have observed on this blog before, visitors to TV.com can rate episodes of their favorite TV programs, but the folks who run the site have changed it over the years. There once was a time when the top–rated episodes for a TV series were listed in descending order — so you could see which ones the viewers (at least, the ones who visited the site) thought were or had been the series' best. That certainly was an interesting feature, especially when you were looking at the page for a series that had been very popular in its day.

You can still rate episodes, and the website still tells you what the overall rating is for an episode. It may take a little while, but you can compare the rating of that episode to the ratings of other episodes and get a pretty fair idea of how other viewers feel about the episode in comparison to others.

And the ratings for the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that first aired on this date in 1955 — "Triggers in Leash" — really surprised me. It was the third of 39 episodes in the series' first season — yet it was rated higher than only eight. That puts it around the bottom one–fifth in that first season, and I am at a loss to explain that.

OK, I'll grant you that it wasn't a great episode. But the ending did have the trademark Hitchcock twist.

And it featured a couple of actors who were not particularly well known at the time but became well known in the years that followed their appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents — Ellen Corby, who won three Emmy Awards for her portrayal of John–Boy Walton's grandmother on The Waltons, and Darren McGavin, who found fame as TV's Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the grumpy father in the movie "A Christmas Story."

I guess the folks who rate episodes at TV.com rated the episode so poorly because it was set in the West, and, while some of Hitchcock's movies may have been set in the West, it was the modern West, and cowboys and horses were seldom, if ever, seen. In fact, in his intro to the episode, Hitchcock confessed that "There isn't a horse to be seen. We intended to get horses, but they couldn't remember the lines."

When one thinks of Hitchcock, one doesn't think of cowboys and Indians. Perhaps that is why the viewers have given the episode such a low rating. It didn't seem like a plausible combination.

I thought the episode reinforced Hitchcock's reputation as a master of suspense, no matter the century, no matter the sub–genre.

It was about a couple of men who got into an argument over a hand of poker, and their fight escalated to a gun duel at an eatery in the country. Corby ran the eatery, a plain sort of place, just a one–room cabin, really, with a few tables and chairs and the stove all within view of each other.

The whole drama was played out in that one room.

At first, Corby tried to get between McGavin and Gene Barry, but she soon gave up and began to use psychology, suggesting that both would die, one in the gunfight and the other would be convicted of murder and executed.

That made the two pause — and they decided to have a truce and sit down and have some ham and eggs.

Corby pleaded with them not to go through with the duel.

But she didn't persuade them. Instead, they agreed not to shoot until the bird in the cuckoo clock stuck his neck out to announce that it was high noon.

So they stood up and faced each other, realizing that the clock would strike noon in a few minutes.

As the fateful moment drew near, Corby made a move for the mantel, saying that she wanted to protect the crucifix from any stray bullets.

There was less than a minute to go before the clock would strike noon — but the clock had stopped.

Corby insisted that she didn't touch the clock, that the "hand of God" stopped the clock to keep the two gunslingers from shooting it out. Chastened, the two gunmen left together.

As the audience soon found out, the crucifix had been used to keep the mantel from tilting. The clock wouldn't run unless it was on a level surface. When Corby removed the crucifix, the surface ceased to be level, and the clock stopped.

That was Hitch's twist ending.

I thought it was done well. I didn't anticipate the ending although all the clues were there. And Hitchcock made the clock a character in the episode, frequently showing it in the background but never drawing attention to it until the very end.

Yep, I thought it deserved better than the rating it gets at TV.com.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Pooka's a Pooka ...



"Harvey and I have things to do ... we sit in the bars ... have a drink or two ... play the jukebox. Very soon the faces of all the other people turn towards me, and they smile. They say, 'We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fellow.' Harvey and I warm ourselves in these golden moments. We came as strangers — soon we have friends. They come over. They sit with us. They drink with us. They talk to us. They tell us about the great big terrible things they've done and the great big wonderful things they're going to do. Their hopes, their regrets. Their loves, their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. Then I introduce them to Harvey, and he's bigger and grander than anything they can offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back, but that's — that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us."

Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart)

Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors, and he has been in some of my favorite movies, but my very favorite Jimmy Stewart performance of all was the one he gave in "Harvey," which premiered 65 years ago today.

As she so often did, my mother introduced me to that movie. She laughed at eventual Best Supporting Actress winner Josephine Hull, who played Stewart's sister, when she delivered lines like "Myrtle Mae, you have a lot to learn, and I hope you never learn it."

Myrtle Mae was her daughter (played by Victoria Horne), and Hull was always giving her advice about men, such as "Oh, Myrtle, don't be didactic. It's not becoming in a young girl. Besides, men loathe it."

I laughed, too, and I still do when I watch "Harvey." Josephine Hull reminded me then — and she still reminds me today — of the older women I knew when I was growing up.

Harvey was a pooka, a six–foot invisible rabbit — or, as Stewart (as Elwood P. Dowd) said in the movie, "Six feet 3½ inches. Now let's stick to the facts."

Speaking of the facts, Stewart was 6–foot–4 and wanted to change Harvey's height from what it had been in the original play. But the folks who made the movie wouldn't give in on that point.

Stewart played a mild–mannered tippler who was always embarrassing his family with his invisible rabbit — which led to some pretty delicious dialogue. With writing like that, it was no wonder the play on which the movie was based was such a hit.

For example, at an afternoon tea party, Hull and Horne had a delightful conversation with an elderly aunt, who noticed that Elwood wasn't around and wanted to know if "Elwood sees anyone these days."

"Oh, yes, Aunt Ethel," Myrtle Mae replied, "he does."

But no one else could see Harvey. Well, almost no one.

At one point, Hull confessed there were times when she thought she could see Harvey, too. And a doctor at the sanatorium where Hull tried to commit Stewart spoke of seeing Harvey as well.

But everyone else seemed to think Stewart was nuts — even though there was ample evidence that Harvey the pooka really did exist.

Anyway, whether Hull really did see Harvey or not, she conspired to have her brother committed to that sanatorium I mentioned earlier. When the head of the sanatorium told Stewart what his sister had done — "This sister of yours is at the bottom of a conspiracy against you. She's trying to persuade me to lock you up. Today she had commitment papers drawn up. She has your power of attorney and the key to your safety box, and she brought you here!" — Stewart's disarming reply was "She did all that in one afternoon. That Veta certainly is a whirlwind, isn't she?"

Stewart had several conversations with the head of the sanatorium (Cecil Kellaway), at one point getting the doctor to talk about his secret desires, the greatest of which seemed to be to spend two weeks in Akron, Ohio, with a woman whose name he didn't know. They would drink cold beer, and he would tell her of his life, and she would pat his hand and say, "You poor, poor thing."

"Wouldn't that get a little monotonous," Stewart wanted to know, "just Akron, cold beer and 'poor, poor thing' for two weeks?"

Wallace Ford was a character actor who probably was best known for his westerns, but he played a crucial role in "Harvey" as a taxi driver who drove Stewart to the sanatorium, where he was scheduled to be given an injection of a serum that would bring him back to the reality his sister wanted for him.

The cab driver tried to explain to Veta that it wouldn't be a good thing.

"I've been driving this route for 15 years," he said to her. "I've brought 'em out here to get that stuff, and I've drove 'em home after they had it. It changes them. On they way out here, they sit back and enjoy the ride. They talk to me. Sometimes we stop and watch the sunset and look at the birds fly. And sometimes we stop and watch the birds when there ain't no birds. And look at the sunset when it's raining. We have a swell time. And I always get a big tip."

"But afterwards, uh oh!"


Veta asked him to clarify, and the cabbie was only too happy to do so.

"They crab, crab, crab," he told her. "They yell at me. Watch the lights. Watch the brakes, Watch the intersection. They scream at me to hurry. They got no faith in me or my buggy. Yep, it's the same cab, the same driver. And we're going back over the very same road. It's no fun. And no tips."

Then Ford delivered what has always been the line of the movie for me.

"After this he'll be a perfectly normal human being — and you know what stinkers they are!"

That statement certainly resonated with Veta. She ran back inside the sanatorium demanding to stop the procedure.

And Harvey remained a part of the family.

In addition to Hull, Stewart was nominated for an Oscar, but he lost Best Actor to José Ferrer.

All About Catty Backstage Backstabbing



"Funny business, a woman's career — the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That's one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing's any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you're not a woman. You're something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you're not a woman. Slow curtain, the end."

Margo Channing (Bette Davis)

As its title implied, "All About Eve" — which premiered on this day in 1950 — was, well, all about Eve (Anne Baxter), an ambitious ladder climber in the theatrical world. Fate threw her in with Bette Davis, who played an aging (and sensitive about it) actress.

I'll spare you most of the details — after all, you might want to see it if you haven't already, and I would encourage you to do so — but Eve maneuvered her way into more than Davis' home. She became Davis' understudy in the Broadway play in which she was appearing — then Celeste Holm manipulated events so Davis was unable to make it to the theater, and Eve had to fill in for her, as understudies are sometimes required to do.

And a star was born.

Her performance was so good it ultimately led to the awards ceremony that opened the movie, in which she was being honored for her work. The rest of the story was told in a kind of flashback mode.

In spite of the title, the movie was not all about Eve. At times, it seemed to be about everyone but Eve. You probably guessed that — even if you haven't seen the movie. Eve was like a pebble that is dropped in the middle of a pond, sending ripples in all directions. She was disarmingly modest — calculatedly so.

Much of the movie was about Davis, whose character's name was Margo, and Bill (Gary Merrill), a director who was in love with her. Their relationship was threatened at times by the young, vivacious (and manipulative) Eve.

Davis claimed that her inspiration for her portrayal of Margo was Tallulah Bankhead. Davis' line "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night" was #9 on the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 movie quotes of all time. It certainly was a great line, but the truth is that just about all the lines in "All About Eve" were gems.

As always, Thelma Ritter played a blunt character — this time named Birdie — who didn't hesitate to voice her opinion of Eve.

"Birdie, you don't like Eve, do you?" Margo asked her at one point.

"You looking for an answer or an argument?" Birdie asked.

"An answer," Margo replied.

"No," Birdie said.

"Why not?" Margo wanted to know.

"Now you want an argument," Birdie replied.

With dialogue like that, it is no wonder that both Baxter and Davis were nominated for Best Actress — but both lost to Judy Holliday in "Born Yesterday" — and Holm and Ritter were nominated for Best Supporting Actress — both lost to Josephine Hull in "Harvey."

Those who are fans of movie trivia will note that "All About Eve" was one of Marilyn Monroe's early films. See her there at the bottom right?

George Sanders was nominated for Best Supporting Actor — in a movie that was primarily about women and their relationships with each other — and he won! Ironic, huh?

"All About Eve" also won Best Picture, Best Director (Joseph Mankiewicz), Best Screenplay (Mankiewicz), Best Sound Recording and Best Black–and–White Costume Design.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Birth of Saturday Night Live



[talking into the telephone] "What are you wearing right now? No bathrobe? [notices the audience, hangs up telephone] Good evening. I'm Chevy Chase!"

Chevy Chase, Oct. 11, 1975

American television changed 40 years ago tonight. At least on Saturday nights.

In 1975, CBS ruled primetime on Saturday nights with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show" running in a two–hour block from 9 to 11 p.m. (Eastern time), but late night was still a vast, unexplored frontier. NBC's affiliates had been running "Best of Carson" compilations from Johnny Carson's Tonight Show on weekends, but Carson announced in 1974 that he wanted the weekend programs pulled and archived so they could be used during the week when he wanted to take time off.

My memory is that Carson always invited a guest to substitute for him when he took time off, though, right up until his retirement in 1992, and I'm not sure how extensively "Best of Carson" was used, if at all, in some markets. Its weekend schedule was very flexible. Affiliates were allowed to show episodes either on Saturday or Sunday, at their discretion.

In the days leading up to that first show, inaugural host George Carlin appeared on primetime promotional ads in which he was depicted as a participant in a stage construction project. NBC was putting the finishing touches on a new show, he told the TV audience, and he invited everyone to tune in on Saturday night.

If you were a George Carlin fan, you were already familiar with the material he used in the first–ever Saturday Night Live monologues. He didn't deliver an original and topical monologue, as hosts do now. He basically lifted jokes from several albums that had been in circulation for years and compiled them into a monologue.

But it was still a treat to see him doing those routines. And he commanded enough star power to draw audiences. So, too, I suppose did the first show's musical guests, Janis Ian and Billy Preston, both of whom had enjoyed some popularity in the early to mid–'70s.

And that is the primary objective of a new TV program — attract an audience. There certainly was a late night audience waiting to be tapped. In 1975, most of America still had only the three networks, a public broadcasting network in many (but not all) areas and maybe an independent station or two. Cable TV was a presence in only a few areas — and wasn't nearly as extensive as it is today.

Everything about the show was new and evolving. Even the name was different. It started out as just Saturday Night. When the program debuted, there already was a program called Saturday Night Live starring Howard Cosell on ABC, and it remained on the air for the first months of SNL's existence. More than a year after Cosell's program was canceled, the show now known as Saturday Night Live took that name — in March 1977.

What we now know as Saturday Night Live began simply as NBC's Saturday Night. The "live" was a description. Go back and watch Chevy Chase's intros of those early programs. "Live from New York," he always said, "it's 'Saturday Night.'"

If you remember those days, you can probably hear Chevy saying that in your head without having to look up a clip at YouTube or anyplace else. Of course, SNL has been using that inroduce each episode for 40 years now so you don't really have to search your memory bank for an audio file of Chase saying that phrase.

Chase said it that way from the first. Then, as now, the show opened with a skit. That first skit showed two people sitting in chairs facing each other. One was writer Michael O'Donoghue who played a professor giving a European immigrant (John Belushi) English lessons. That skit is remembered as the "Wolverine" sketch because the professor was always giving the immigrant sentences to say that included that word. For example ...
Professor: Let us begin. Repeat after me. I would like ...

Immigrant: [in a thick accent] I would like ...

Professor: ... to feed your fingertips ...

Immigrant: ...to feed yur fingerteeps ...

Professor: ... to the wolverines.

Immigrant: ... to de wolver–eenes.

The English lesson was cut short when the professor clutched his chest and collapsed on the floor.

From off–camera, Chase emerged to announce that it was Saturday Night. Ever since that time it has been a staple of the show to have someone — sometimes several people — break character to utter that familiar phrase.

The show, as I say, was evolving. My memory is that Carlin didn't participate in any skits other than his opening monologue. Today, of course, guest hosts are full participants in that week's show. I don't know when that changed. It probably developed over time. SNL always has been a work in progress.

The skits were handled by the Not–Ready–For–Prime–Time Players, which introduced America to people who became quite familiar in short order — Chase, Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris.

Often, SNL has created cultural catchphrases, reaffirming its social relevance after four decades on the air. It has been resilient. In the late '70s, few people thought SNL could survive the departure of Chevy Chase, but it did. It has become a training ground and career launching pad for the stars of tomorrow.

The program's political skits have become so legendary that a compilation program of politically themed skits always airs during a presidential election campaign, and Chevy Chase's early portrayals of a clumsy Gerald Ford are sure to be included.

In countless unexpected ways, SNL has influenced the culture. Who would have thought on this night in 1975 that it would still be on the air in the 21st century?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

'The Elephant Man' Was Blunt and Uncompromising



"People are frightened by what they don't understand."

John Merrick (John Hurt)

"The Elephant Man," which premiered on this date in 1980, was an extremely difficult movie to watch at times.

That does not mean it was a bad movie. Quite the contrary. Nearly everything about it was great. The acting was great. The directing was great. All the technical aspects of the movie were great.

The makeup was so impressive, in fact, that the Oscars were shamed into creating a new category for makeup and hairstyling the next year after Christopher Tucker's makeup work in "The Elephant Man" wasn't honored. Tucker wasn't overlooked deliberately by the Academy. There simply wasn't a category to recognize makeup artists.

Prior to that, two Special Achievement Oscars were awarded — to William Tuttle (in 1964 for "7 Faces of Dr. Lao") and John Chambers (in 1968 for "Planet of the Apes") — but there was no standing category for makeup artists (or, in Tucker's case, prosthetic work), and that was a mistake, considering the many great things that were done with makeup in the decades before "The Elephant Man."

The first recipient of the new Oscar — and, thus, the first beneficiary of the fallout from Tucker's snub — was Rick Baker for "An American Werewolf in London."

Tucker was recognized with an Oscar for Best Makeup a few years later.

In all, "The Elephant Man" received eight Oscar nominations, tying it with "Raging Bull" for the most nominations that year, but it took none home. That may have been the greatest shock of that year's Oscars.

John Hurt was brilliant in the role of John Merrick (in reality, Merrick's first name was Joseph; I have no idea why it was changed for the movie), the grossly disfigured hero of the story, and he was recognized for his work with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. (He lost to Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull.")

None of the other performers — Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller — were nominated, but the movie was nominated for Best Picture and David Lynch was nominated for Best Director. Both awards went to "Ordinary People."

It was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. How on earth did it fail to win a single Oscar?

It couldn't be because the subject matter was regarded as too rough. The winner of Best Picture that year was "Ordinary People," a story about a family coming apart at the seams, and it could be every bit as difficult to watch as "The Elephant Man."

I suppose more people could relate to "Ordinary People" than "The Elephant Man," though. You never have to look very far to find a dysfunctional family, but Merrick suffered from a rare disease, one that hasn't touched a fraction of the people that dysfunction has. Still, even if far fewer people could relate to his circumstances, his character was every bit as sympathetic.

He endured all kinds of abuse in Victorian England as a result of his affliction — and abuse, unfortunately, is not uncommon, even in today's politically correct climate. Hurt's performance deserved all the praise that film critics were eager to heap on the movie.

There were those in the movie who recognized what was happening. Merrick was a friendly and intelligent person, but he was hideous to behold, and that was what drove his treatment from others — and drove away those who might have been his friends.

"Can you imagine the kind of life he must have had?" pondered John Gielgud at one point.

"Yes, I think I can," replied Hopkins.

"I don't think so," Gielgud countered. "No one could possibly imagine it. I don't believe any of us can."

Merrick was regarded as a freak by many; in fact, the movie opened with him in a carnival, advertised as the "Elephant Man."

It was early in the movie that the viewers began to get a real taste for the grim reality of Merrick's existence. By the time Hurt was introduced to Hannah Gordon, who played Hopkins' wife, most viewers must surely have perceived the irony of their conversation.

"I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Merrick," she said.

"I'm very pleased ..." Merrick began but couldn't finish. He was overcome with emotion.

"What is it, John?" Hopkins asked, concern creeping into his voice. "What's the matter?"

"It's just that I'm not used to being treated so well by a beautiful woman," Merrick replied.

The fact that being told "I'm very pleased to meet you" upon being introduced to someone could be regarded as being treated well speaks volumes and is heartbreaking testimony to the life he led.

"The Elephant Man" was blunt and uncompromising. Hurt's performance may have been the most sensitive I have ever seen.

I still can't believe the American Film Institute did not include "The Elephant Man" in its Top 100 movies of all time list.

Pursue Your Dreams While Ye May



"Dad, I thought we had an agreement. Eddie doesn't roll around on my sofa, and I don't throw him in front of a bus."

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer)

In the Frasier episode that aired 20 years ago tonight, Frasier's aunt had just died, and her will had put Frasier in charge of her memorial. Apparently, she was nobody's favorite aunt. Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) described her as a "dreadful old harpy" and said that she never said anything to him that wasn't "scornful, derisive or contemptuous."

Why had she put Frasier in charge of her memorial? Roz (Peri Gilpin) wanted to know.

"I was her favorite," Frasier replied.

Back at Frasier's apartment, Aunt Louise was the topic of conversation for Frasier, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and their father, Martin (John Mahoney). According to Aunt Louise's will, Niles was to dispose of her ashes so he felt under pressure to pick the perfect spot for her to spend eternity, and Frasier had been designated to deliver the eulogy at the memorial service in two weeks.

Martin suggesting flushing the ashes down the toilet. Daphne (Jane Leeves) protested that they couldn't do that. "Why not?" Martin asked. "She loved the water."

That inspired Niles to scatter the ashes at the beach, but then he thought better of it. "No, no, she hated seagulls," Niles recalled. "And vice versa."

Then, in one of my absolute favorite dialogue exchanges from Frasier, the Cranes reminisced about how Aunt Louise used to complain about the winters in Seattle. Martin recalled that Aunt Louise always wanted to go to the South Pacific but wouldn't spend the money. So she would whine about "how she'd like to be in a warmer climate."

"My guess," Frasier said, "is she finally made it."

That prompted Daphne to muse about how sad it would be to go through life with a secret dream that went unfulfilled. "You'd never do anything silly like that, would you, Mr. Crane?" she asked Martin.

It turned out that Martin had been writing song lyrics for years and kept them in a shoe box. Because Martin and his late wife had been fans of Frank Sinatra, Martin had written the lyrics with Sinatra in mind. His fantasy had been that he and his wife would go to Las Vegas and see Sinatra in concert — and he would open the show with one of Martin's songs.

But Martin had never followed through and sent any of his lyrics to Sinatra because he was convinced they weren't any good. Except for one. Upon reading the lyrics, Martin conceded, "I've gotta admit. This has Frank written all over it."

But Martin could only write lyrics. He had no musical training. Niles and Frasier did, though, and they volunteered to help their father complete the song so he could mail it to Sinatra. It took some persuading, but he finally agreed. And, after a long night, they finished the song, and Martin resolved to mail it to Sinatra the next morning.

If only Frasier's eulogy had gone as smoothly, but he was still working on it an hour before the memorial service. It was his commitment to the truth that got in his way. He refused to, as he put it, "invent virtues the woman didn't have."

Niles was faring no better with trying to find a place for Aunt Louise's ashes.

And Martin was still waiting to hear from Sinatra.

Niles and Frasier hit upon the perfect place for Aunt Louise's ashes — a meadow where she once took Niles to fly a kite. When the kite got lodged in a tree, she made Niles climb up after it. He fell and broke his collarbone in two places. "It was the only time I ever saw her laugh," Niles recalled.

So they went to the meadow before going to the memorial service, but Niles couldn't get the urn open.

As Niles struggled with the urn, Frasier and Martin had a conversation. It turned out Martin had heard from Sinatra's people. They had rejected the song.

Niles asked Frasier to help him open the urn. "I may have loosened it," Niles told Frasier a split second before the urn came open and Aunt Louise's ashes spilled out — mostly onto Niles.

Well, that solved Niles' problem.

And, as it turned out, Martin's rejection solved Frasier's problem as well.

Aunt Louise's entire retirement home turned out for her funeral — not because they were sorry to see her go but because radio personality Frasier Crane was giving the eulogy.

But rather than deliver a eulogy — although he did deliver a brief one, observing that Aunt Louise touched them all during her life and, after brushing her residual ashes from his suit, remarked, "She touches us still" — he directed the church choir in a rendition of Martin's song, "She's Such a Groovy Lady," fulfilling his father's dream of hearing the song performed once.

And that is what the episode that aired on this night in 1995 was really all about — fulfilling, or attempting to fulfill, one's dreams.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Something Unpleasant This Way Comes



In the years to come, she would be known as an Oscar– and Emmy–winning actress, famous for her work on the big screen, on television and on the stage.

But on this night 60 years ago, 29–year–old Cloris Leachman was a guest star in the second episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," playing John Forsythe's former girlfriend and present sister–in–law. At the time, she was probably best known for competing in the 1946 Miss America pageant. No doubt Forsythe was the better known of the two.

Forsythe played a pianist who returned to his hometown, hoping to patch things up with his estranged father, with an unsettling feeling that something was wrong. Everything looked the same, but Forsythe's friends and family weren't comfortable seeing him, even though he had been gone four years. That alone was strange, but they were so evasive about certain things — like his father's whereabouts, for example.

He soon found out why. His father had died not long after he had left. His brother (Warren Stevens), who had married Forsythe's girl, had been the beneficiary of a rewritten will and had inherited the father's estate.

Forsythe thought the whole thing sounded fishy. OK, his father was dead, of that there was no doubt, but there was considerable uncertainty about when he died — and how. His father supposedly died of a heart attack while playing tennis, yet Forsythe found a hunting license for which his father had applied the day after he supposedly died.

So Forsythe went to the woods of Maine, where the hunting trip had been planned, to find out what happened.

What the viewers got was a classic Hitchcock double cross.

When the truth was finally uttered by Leachman, she told a story of Forsythe having murdered his own father. They had argued. Leachman's character mentioned a loaded hunting rifle and an accident, never saying how Forsythe killed his father, only telling him that he had never been a musician in Paris or Rome as he had claimed. Instead, he had spent the last four years in a "hospital" in Arizona, and he had run away.

Forsythe's brother, sister–in–law and her father had worked together to protect Forsythe and conceal the nature of the father's death.

"We thought it was the only thing to do at the time," Leachman said. "Now I'm not so sure."

That may have been the most honest statement in the episode. After all, how many times have you been faced with a situation in which you felt you had little choice but to go with the least–objectionable option? If you're like me, the answer is, "More than I can count."

I've heard such a choice described as "the lesser of two evils." That's more poetic than calling something a "no–win situation," but that is what the episode that aired 60 years ago tonight is.

And whereas I thought the series' first episode was a bit predictable, I must confess that, the first time I saw this episode, I didn't see that ending coming.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

In Spite of Shortcomings, 'Secretariat' Was a Winner



"This is not about going back. This is about life being ahead of you, and you run at it! Because you never know how far you can run unless you run."

Penny Chenery (Diane Lane)

Even now, more than 40 years later, the story of Secretariat seems like the sort of thing that could only happen in Hollywood, a fairy tale.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that a movie would be made about it, and that movie began showing in theaters across the country on this day in 2010. It had all the elements of an epic, beating–the–odds kind of story, a real feel–good triumph — even though it wasn't quite as much of a rags–to–riches tale as it might have appeared on the silver screen.

That does not mean it was not dramatic.

While I am sure there were parts of it that were dramatized — in fact, I know there were — "Secretariat" was the kind of history movie that I like — one that is basically true to the facts. The facts of Secretariat's story certainly were dramatic enough.

Which is why I was sorry to see that the Disney studios thought it was necessary to whip up conflict that wasn't needed. In reality, Secretariat's chief rival was a horse called Sham, and the movie portrayed Sham's trainer unfavorably — and unfairly, according to no less an authority than jockey Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat to the 1973 Triple Crown.

"[Sham's trainer] Pancho [Martin] is a wonderful person, always was," Turcotte told the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union. "I loved him, he was great to me, and it hurt me to see the way he was portrayed."

Turcotte said John Malkovich's portrayal of Secretariat's trainer, Lucien Laurin, wasn't accurate, either. I don't think he had any complaints about Malkovich's acting, but Laurin was "a very conservative dresser," Turcotte said. He didn't wear the loud clothes that Malkovich wore in the movie.

Nor did Laurin play golf, as he was shown doing early in the movie. Turcotte said Laurin was a fisherman when he wasn't training horses.

While I'm on the topic of historical discrepancies, the movie made it seem that Sham beat Secretariat in the Wood Memorial, a Kentucky Derby prep race held two weeks before the Derby; in reality, though, a horse named Angle Light won the Wood Memorial. Sham finished second that day and Secretariat, who was found to have an abscess under his lip, finished third.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Actually, in spite of those shortcomings, I thought the movie was very good. I remember the real–life story of Secretariat's Triple Crown run being the subject of conversations in movie theater lines and at restaurants — everyone was talking about it, people knew Secretariat's name even if they didn't know anything else about horse racing — or sports, for that matter. But few knew the story of how Penny Chenery (played by Diane Lane in the movie) came to own Secretariat.

She won the rights to him on the toss of a coin, which she lost but wound up winning in the end because she got Secretariat, possibly the greatest racehorse who ever lived. But Chenery's personal story was just as inspiring as Secretariat's. Taking charge of her father's horse farm after her mother's death, Chenery found herself competing in an almost exclusively male business. She did so successfully with the help of Laurin and another horse owner and breeder played by Fred Thompson.

One of the things I have observed in my life is that the stories of legends are often glossed over to the point where observers think the subject must have lived a charmed life and never had to overcome anything en route to becoming the best at whatever he or she did. That usually isn't true, of course, and it certainly wasn't true of Secretariat.

Nor was it true of Penny Chenery. But both did overcome, and the movie told that story well.

In the current political climate, it is worth taking the time to remember women who truly were pioneers, not opportunists. Pioneers have to be tough, as the nation's first black president has been learning, and they aren't apt to win many popularity contests in their chosen fields — although history does tend to look favorably upon them.

It also did a pretty good job of re–creating the Triple Crown races that put Secretariat's name firmly in the annals of horse racing. The first and third races — the Kentucky Derby in early May and the Belmont in early June — showed Penny Chenery's reaction in the stands. The Preakness, in mid–May, showed her family watching on TV from their home.

The family was with Mrs. Chenery for the '73 Belmont, which has taken on a life of its own in the last four decades, largely because of the unexpected ease with which Secretariat won the third and final jewel of the 1973 Triple Crown.

On that day, Secretariat left the field in the dust and won by an astonishing 31 lengths.

As Lane and Malkovich watched the race, there was no suspense about the winner. All Malkovich could do was shout to the jockey, "Don't fall off!"

No other advice was needed.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Telling an Important Story



"We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn)

I had many motivations that led me to a career in journalism.

Personally, I have always preferred print journalism. I suppose that is because I've never felt comfortable in front of a camera. The immediacy of the medium, I guess, made it seem too improvisational to me, and being in the spotlight like that makes me nervous. I like being able to write, to sit back and think when I'm trying to put my finger on a particular word that escapes me at the moment — and not have that pause mistaken for anything other than what it is.

Still, I grew up admiring the newsmen I saw on TV for their commitment to their principles and the integrity in their words. When print journalists came along — Woodward and Bernstein — whose articles influenced the course of history, I knew which direction I wanted to take.

Sadly, too many modern journalists believe they must side with one political party or the other, that they can no longer promote truth and justice unless they are certain that they are on the right side as far as their chosen party is concerned.

"Good Night, and Good Luck," which premiered on this day 10 years ago, told the story of early broadcast journalists who didn't check party affiliations before taking sides because they were committed to principles that predated political parties.

It was a movie, wrote film critic Roger Ebert, about "a group of professional newsmen who with surgical precision remove a cancer from the body politic. They believe in the fundamental American freedoms, and in Sen. Joseph McCarthy they see a man who would destroy those freedoms in the name of defending them."

Telling truth to power is seldom easy — and frequently dangerous. It must have been especially difficult and risky in the early 1950s, when the story that was dramatized on film played out for real in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. McCarthy was hunting communists, both real and imagined. The time was right for such a charlatan. Americans had been fed a steady diet of anti–communist propaganda in the years since World War II.

It was inevitable that the journalists at CBS, especially Edward R. Murrow (played masterfully by David Strathairn), would accept the challenge and confront McCarthy. "Good Night, and Good Luck" told that story.

It's one of the stories from history that went undramatized on the big screen for many, many years. At least, I am not aware of any dramatizations before this one. It's like the original Nuremberg trial. Probably the most crucial postwar event, yet it went decades without being dramatized. Sure, the movie "Judgment at Nuremberg" examined the trials and delivered an effective — but fictional — story. At least "Good Night, and Good Luck" told a true — and triumphant — story (at least as far as the free press was concerned).

Interestingly, when "Good Night, and Good Luck" was at the theaters, I read an article about the assessments of viewers who watched the sneak preview of the movie. A distinct majority thought the actor playing McCarthy came across as being too mean. Er, uh, that was no actor. Those were actual news clips of Joe McCarthy.

Those clips were in black and white, of course, and the movie was made in black and white. I thought that was a good call. It almost gave the viewer the sensation of watching a documentary. If most of the movie had been made in color, it would have seemed terribly odd juxtaposed with actual black–and–white TV footage.

George Clooney directed the movie in addition to playing CBS producer Fred Friendly. He got an Oscar nomination for his directing, and the movie got a nomination for Best Picture at a time when the Academy had a maximum of five nominees in a category.

Ebert wrote that Clooney's use of genuine news footage of McCarthy was a "masterstroke." I agree.

"It is frightening to see him in full rant," Ebert wrote, "and pathetic to see him near meltdown during the Army–McCarthy hearings, when the Army counsel Joseph Welch famously asked him, 'Have you no decency?' His wild attack on Murrow has an element of humor; he claims the broadcaster is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the anarchist 'Wobblies' who by then were more a subject of nostalgic folk songs than a functioning organization."

It was important, too, given the years that have passed, for people who have no memory of McCarthy's rise and fall (and I am one of them) to see and hear him. So much of history seems dead to young people because the technology of the times did not permit the visual preservation of important events and speeches. They must be read about — and far too many people don't want to read anything more than texts these days.

But we have actual films of McCarthy that clearly demonstrate that he was worse than just about anything modern people can imagine — which is ironic, I think, since so many of the tactics that McCarthy used then are used today by people who would tell you they are the exact opposite of McCarthy philosophically — and so they are. But their methods are virtually indistinguishable.

There was a side story about Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr., who played CBS colleagues who happened to be married. That was against CBS policy at the time — I have no idea if it is still against CBS policy — so Clarkson's character and Downey's character struggled to keep it under wraps, believing that only a few trusted colleagues knew the truth. Near the end of the movie, they learned that their marriage was common knowledge around the office.

It was really the only subplot in the movie. The rest of it was almost entirely — and unrelentingly — about politics and journalism and the principles of freedom — which was fine with me but might have been a bit tedious for ordinary moviegoers otherwise. The first time I saw the movie, I really couldn't see the added value the subplot brought to the overall story. Leave it to Ebert to point it out to me.

"[The subplot] underlines the atmosphere of the times," Ebert observed. "... Their clandestine meetings and subtle communications raise our own suspicions and demonstrate in a way how McCarthyism works."

The more I think about it, the more I realize he was right about that. In a very subtle, understated kind of way, Clooney made his point with that same surgical precision of which Ebert wrote.

Ebert made another important point that I would be remiss in not mentioning.

"The movie is not really about the abuses of McCarthy, but about the process by which Murrow and his team eventually brought about his downfall (some would say his self–destruction)," Ebert wrote. "It is like a morality play, from which we learn how journalists should behave."

It reminds me of how my college professors insisted that we, as aspiring journalists, ought to behave. I wish more of my classmates had taken that to heart.

Be Careful What You Wish For



"It isn't just an antique shop where you pick up the pitiful remnants of other people's failures; it's a shrine to failure itself! That's what it is."

Arthur (Luther Adler)

You probably wouldn't recognize the names of any of the actors who appeared in the episode of the original Twilight Zone that premiered on this date in 1960. But the actors' faces would be familiar to anyone who has watched much TV programming that was produced in those days. They were popping up frequently in supporting roles.

As for the episode itself, it was a very Twilight Zone–esque story — a middle–aged couple struggled to make ends meet with their small antiques shop. One day an elderly woman came in looking to sell a bottle. She claimed it was a family heirloom, but the husband knew it was an old glass bottle that wasn't worth anything. She found it in a trash dumpster. He also knew the old lady needed money for food so he went along with her story and gave her a dollar — even though he had no money to spare.

After she left, the man knocked over the bottle and it turned out to contain a genuine genie. You probably wouldn't recognize the name of the actor who played the genie, either, but he offered the couple four wishes.

The owner of the shop was skeptical. As proof that the genie was telling the truth, he wished for some broken glass in a display case to be repaired. The genie touched it, and the cracks disappeared.

Convinced that the genie was telling the truth, the couple wished for a million dollars in $5 and $10 bills, which came cascading from above — inside the shop.

In a fit of generosity, the shopkeepers gave a lot of their money away to folks in the neighborhood who, like themselves, were down on their luck. The last person to visit the shop was an IRS representative, who informed them that they would owe taxes on their windfall. When they counted up the money they had left and deducted the taxes they owed, they were left with $5.

The genie reminded them that he had urged them to think carefully before making a wish. A wish could not be undone except through the use of another wish. The shopkeeper asked the genie what could be wished for that would have no "tricks" attached. The genie said it had been no trick. There were consequences with any windfall. If they had made a wish that took into consideration the taxes, that outcome might have been avoided.

"No matter what you wish for," the genie said, "you must be prepared for the consequences."

The shopkeeper decided to wish for power. What kind of power? the genie wanted to know. President of a corporation?

The wife pointed out that the corporation could go bankrupt.

Mayor of a city?

Could get voted out of office.

The shopkeeper had the answer: He wanted to be the head of a 20th–century foreign country who could not be voted out of office.

So the genie granted him his wish — he was Hitler in the bunker at the end of World War II.

That led to his final wish — to be a simple, struggling shopkeeper once more.

And so he was.

The shopkeeper and his wife decided that their life wasn't as bad as they thought — and agreed to spruce up the old life since they clearly couldn't afford a new one. The wife pointed out that they came out ahead, anyway, noting the glass in the display case that was repaired in the first wish. Unfortunately, though, the glass was broken again a few seconds later, leaving the two precisely where they had been before the genie came into their lives.

I guess the lesson of the story was that you should be careful what you wish for — although, really, shouldn't there be something better to it than that?

The Space Race Comes to Gilligan's Island



"There's space up there, there's space down here, and there's space between your ears!"

The Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.)

I hear people speak of "the '60s" as if the entire decade could be defined by a single word or a single movement — like Vietnam or civil rights. I suppose most previous decades were one–dimensional that way. Must have made things a whole lot simpler.

The '60s were about a lot of things — not the least of which was the space race, which had no obvious connection to Vietnam and could hardly be tied to civil rights. Perhaps not coincidentally, none of the decades since could be narrowed to a single word or phrase, either.

For American sitcoms in the 1960s, it took truly creative writing to make war or race relations into subjects for comedy. That was the kind of thing that TV's comedy writers did in the '70s with shows like All in the Family.

But the space race was different. It tapped into that American desire to explore the next frontier and pride in the courage of the first pioneers — which is why you really don't have to look far to find episodes of TV series from those days, sitcom or not, that focused on space. By its very nature, it was inspirational. It brought people together in a common cause. It wasn't a polarizing topic, like war and race.

As the episode of Gilligan's Island opened on this night in 1965, Gilligan (Bob Denver) had been hired by Mr. Howell (Jim Backus) to gather feathers to stuff a pillow for Mrs. Howell (Natalie Schafer), but it was strictly hush–hush. So when the Professor (Russell Johnson) and the Skipper (Alan Hale) came too close to Gilligan's hiding place for the feathers, he felt compelled to distract them so his stash wouldn't be discovered.

Well, that's what was happening on Gilligan's Island. It was the same kind of rather innocuous existence that most humans probably led the world over. Gilligan's existence, of course, was dictated by his circumstances. He and his fellow castaways occupied a part of the world that was, apparently, unexplored, but as a frontier it couldn't possibly compare to space. So I suppose that contrast, unspoken though it was, was there for the viewers to see.

Back at Mission Control, a space probe had been sent to Mars and was about to land. The folks back at Mission Control were eager to see if there was any proof of life on Mars. When I first saw this episode, it didn't occur to me that it would take many months at least for a space vehicle, even an unmanned probe, to travel from Earth to Mars. The characters at Mission Control acted almost as if they had been following this mission for a few days, as they would for a trip to the much closer moon. I guess that time discrepancy didn't occur to the adults who wrote the episode or most of the adults who watched it, either.

Somehow the probe had been diverted from its course and had landed on Gilligan's Island instead; Gilligan stumbled onto it — literally — while looking for some feathers.

The castaways, who had been keeping up with the news reports on the probe on their radio, knew when NASA would activate the camera so they were going to use that to get a message out to the world.

Unfortunately, the lens appeared to have been jostled loose when the probe landed or when Gilligan accidentally stumbled over it. Now it was missing, and the castaways had to find it before Mission Control activated the camera, which they did, but then the lens got broken — by guess who? — and had to be repaired. The castaways gathered the ingredients, and Gilligan cooked up some glue to repair the lens, and it worked — but, when he was summoned to join the others in front of the camera, he put a lid on the boiling pot of glue, and the pressure caused a glue explosion. The castaways, now covered with glue, chased Gilligan into the hut where he had been storing the feathers, and they all became unrecognizable with feathers covering their bodies.

The folks at Mission Control thought they had proven that there was life on Mars — chicken people, half man and half bird. As they watched, the Skipper chastised Gilligan and pushed him down. The observers at Mission Control tried to evaluate what they had seen.

"What's that big bird man doing to that little bird man?" one of the Mission Control people asked the other.

"I can't be sure, but I think he's trying to get him to lay an egg," came the reply.

The buzzing of the camera alerted the castaways and they looked for the signs they had prepared for the occasion, but they were behind the camera. Gilligan went to get the signs, then tripped over the camera, knocking it to the ground — and out of commission. Another opportunity for rescue had been ruined by — who else? — Gilligan.